‘Which tree are you most drawn to?’ asks the instructor. ‘Walk towards it and say hello.’
Under normal circumstances, trying to strike up a dialogue with a large silver birch might sound a touch on the Prince-Charles-chatting-to-plants side of eccentric; something to make the more cynical among us roll our eyes.
Today, though, it doesn’t feel weird, woo-woo, or even particularly ‘alternative’. I’m in the middle of my first forest bathing experience, and for once, my mind isn’t constantly catching on the sharp edges of my worries, but calm and utterly peaceful.
The Duchess of Cambridge recently brought the concept of forest bathing into the mainstream when she explained it was the inspiration behind her garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Shinrin-Yoku, as the practice is called in Japan, involves walking slowly and mindfully in woodland, ‘bathing’ in its tranquility.
Studies have shown that blood pressure, heart rate, mood and the immune system can be improved by spending quiet time in forested areas. In Japan, it’s a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing, and the idea is gaining traction around the world. In his influential book Last Child in the Woods, the American author Richard Louv argues that if young people don’t visit green spaces on a regular basis, they can suffer from ‘nature deficit disorder’, which could be fuelling the rise in conditions including attention disorders, obesity and depression.
The instructor guiding our small group through today’s experience in the idyllic South Downs in Sussex is Helena Skoog, a yoga teacher from Sweden, where spending time in nature is an integral part of daily life. She’s well-placed to explain the benefits, since she lives off-grid in a cabin in the woods. She’s also an excellent advert for it, with skin that positively glows with well-being and a mesmerisingly soothing voice.
First, she asks us to pick up an object from the ground and imagine ourselves pouring our stress into it before placing it in a little bowl so we can leave it behind as we venture into the forest. I’m not good at visualisation but try to suspend my disbelief as we walk into a beautiful clearing surrounded by vast, centuries-old trees which form a shady canopy above us.
We lie down and Helena encourages us to observe them carefully, from the sound their leaves make in the breeze to the texture of their bark. Lying in silence, without a phone in my hand, I look more closely at the trees than I’ve done since childhood. Cliched as it may be, they exude a comforting warmth and wisdom which instantly makes me feel more at peace.
With our eyes closed, Helena guides us through a meditation, urging us to focus on how our bodies feel against the cool ground, what the air feels like around us, the scents of the wood and the noises we can pick out. Bathed in a gentle breeze, listening to the birds singing and the shushing sound of the leaves, I’m so relaxed I almost fall asleep.
We walk further into the woods and find a meadow, where she asks us to take off our shoes and socks and feel the slightly damp grass under our toes as we walk around. Earlier, she asked us to bring our ‘child mind’, the more playful, open side of ourselves, and I start to understand why: I realise I haven’t done anything like this since I was much younger, and it’s evoking memories of that carefree time. She even urges us to taste a few grains of earth, which I do, tentatively, trying not to think about what it might contain.
On our way back, Helena instructs us to collect any little objects we find pleasing, so I gather feathers, daisies, pretty leaves and fuzzy catkins. Back in the clearing, we arrange them in a little shrine to nature. Again, I’m taken back to my childhood, when I’d happily spend hours at the bottom of the garden concocting magical potions from flowers and twigs. The little arrangement I make – and leave behind, as a thank you for my lovely, restorative morning - is strangely satisfying.
My forest bathing excursion is part of a special new package offered by The Spread Eagle, a delightfully quirky historic inn in Midhurst, a Richard-Curtis-film-pretty town in West Sussex. I stay in a room once slept in by Elizabeth I in 1591, complete with its own wig closet where the Virgin Queen’s fiery red bouffant may or may not have resided. The countryside we roam in is a mere two minutes’ walk from the hotel.
It’s all too obvious that the way we live today has disconnected most of us from our natural environment. We know spending eight hours a day staring at a computer screen – then god knows how many more staring at our phones – makes our brains feel overloaded and our stress levels soar. It’s also no great revelation that spending time surrounded by trees, flowers and grass is an antidote. But knowing this and actually practicing it are two very different things.
The peaceful feeling lingers for the next couple of days and I sleep better. It's not a quick fix, though - to see long-term benefits, we need to emulate our ancestors and commune with nature as often as possible.
Sometimes, perhaps we need to repackage something which should be instinctive as a lifestyle trend to remind us of its value. It certainly reminded me. Next time I feel down or lacking in energy, instead of switching on Netflix, I’ll drag myself to my local park – and now, I’ll try to pay more attention to what’s around me.
Forest Bathing overnight experience at The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa starts from £275 based on two sharing a classic room on a dinner, bed & breakfast basis, including one 2-hour forest bathing session and a 2-hour yoga session with Helena Skoog. This package is available on certain dates: Sunday/Monday 11th/12th August, Sunday/Monday 25th/26th September, Sunday/Monday 13th/14th October, Sunday/Monday 10th/11th November.
Forest Bathing day experience at The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa is £25 per person which includes a 2-hour forest bathing session and a two-course lunch and softail with Helena Skoog. This package is available on certain dates: Monday 12th August, Monday 26th September, Monday 14th October, Monday 11th November.
Other experiences and add-ons available upon request.